In a new book, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman asserts that we need to overcome the Internet’s sorting tendencies and create tools to make ourselves ‘digital cosmopolitans.’
Need a washer or drier? Check the web.
That's the drill in the laundry room at Random Hall, thanks to Philip A. Lisiecki (SB 1996), who wired up the four dryers and three washers while he was living at the residence during his junior year.
Mr. Lisiecki, now a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), created the Internet laundry hookup, with help from Kevin Lynch (SB 1996), who is attending graduate school at Boston University. It allows the residents to monitor the washers and dryers via computer from their rooms, avoiding the drudgery of observing the final cycle while waiting for a machine.
"I first got the idea late at night," Mr. Lisiecki recalled recently. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if the laundry machines were on line? Then I wouldn't have to go downstairs to see whether the machines were available.' At first it was a purely silly, frivolous idea, but the people I mentioned it to eventually realized that it was a pretty cool idea. So I built it and Kevin and I installed it.
"It wasn't too hard to do, but there were a few challenges to overcome, such as how to get useful information out of the machines without altering the machines or dealing with high voltages, and how to get the information from the basement to my computer on the second floor. But a little thought revealed solutions such as hijacking the dorm's old phone wiring.
"Once it was all running, everyone liked it. I could tell people used it since every time I turned my machine off for a half hour, someone with a laundry basket would wander by my room to find out what was wrong."
Shortly after the laundry server was created, housemaster Nina Davis-Millis, an MIT information technology librarian, suggested that it be included in a New York Public Library exhibit on innovative uses of the Internet. Her friend, who was organizing the exhibit, included it in a proposal for the exhibit.
"Her superiors were heartily displeased with her," said Ms. Davis-Millis. "They told her that she was too gullible, that she apparently was not familiar with the noble MIT tradition of hacking, but that it ought to have been obvious to her that hooking washers and dryers to the Internet was impossible." Thus, on the grounds that it couldn't be done, Random Hall's Internet laundry connection was not included in the NYPL Internet exhibit. To which Mr. Lisiecki replies, "They seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the Internet: nothing is too trivial."
The system, still in place, provides a time-management perk for the 93 undergraduates and three graduate resident tutors who now live in Random Hall at 282 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge. When Mr. Lisiecki graduated, the server software and connection were passed on to Jacob Schwartz (SB 1998, now a graduate student in EECS) and later to Daniel Kamalic, who graduates in June. Gary Zacheiss, a junior in physics, will be in charge next year.
Ziff-Davis Broadcasting recently filmed a segment on the setup in conjunction with Yahoo! magazine's Most Wired Campus survey.
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 26).